The Supreme Court of the United States is off to an unusually slow start this term, as the justices have disposed of just 15 cases by May 1, the lowest number in 100 years.
The court started its term in October, and by this time in 1923, it had issued 157 rulings. The current justices are facing a firestorm of scrutiny on multiple fronts, which could explain the slower pace.
The court has heard fewer cases this term than it did in previous decades. In the 1922–23 term, the court heard 205 cases, said Lee Epstein, a political scientist at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. This term it was a mere 59.
Of the 14 cases the court has issued full rulings on this term, only eight have been unanimous. The court was divided 5–4 in two cases and 6–3 in three others. The court dismissed one case without issuing a written ruling.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a member of court‘s 6–3 conservative majority, downplayed the delay in issuing decisions in January, saying at a public event that the court was “off and running“ and that he was confident all the rulings would be issued by the end of June.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, said that the court is slower this year, but it has been pretty slow in recent years, too.
Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, said that the increased number of emergency cases, which have been dubbed the “shadow docket,” has a broad impact on how the court operates, including why the court is taking longer compared to its historical norms for releasing decisions.
John Elwood, a lawyer who argues cases before the court, said that the court has a lot of important cases this term that will prompt separate writing by the justices, and that slows down the pace of decision.
The court has 44 cases to decide in the next few weeks before the traditional hard stop at the end of June. The next day on which rulings are expected is May 11. The justices face a challenge to finish in time. It is possible the court could sidestep some big rulings, such as a case seeking to keep in place a Trump–era immigration policy, because the policy was premised on the Covid–19 public health emergency that Biden is expected to end on May 11. There is also a possibility for different reasons that the court could duck rulings on the scope of immunity that internet companies have for content posted by users and an attempt to curb the power of state courts to rule on election rules.
No matter what the outcome, the Supreme Court is sure to have an impact on the lives of Americans with its rulings this term. It remains to be seen how quickly the court will be able to issue them.